Post PGR Experience: Learning to Love the 'Limbo' Period
So you have submitted your PhD and passed your viva? Congratulations! What happens next can often be a surprisingly tricky time for PGRs. We have explored life after the PhD before, but what about that period between finishing your PhD and starting your next project or new job? For me, those months after submitting my thesis were difficult. I found that everyone expected me to be relieved and excited (and I did feel like this) but that people struggled to understand why I wasn’t jumping for joy all the time. The unexpected low-feelings caught me by surprise. This post hopes to share some of these experiences, to let other PGRs know that it is okay to struggle after your PhD. I also want to share some practical steps and advice.
The period after submitting my thesis felt like a 'limbo' time. I didn’t quite feel like I had finished with my research, not having had my viva or completed any subsequent corrections, but I was also itching to move on. My supervisors were great, and reassured me that it was normal to feel a bit flat after finishing up. Not having a project to work on, or tasks to complete each week, was disconcerting at first, and I missed the routine I had created during my research. I also wasn’t sure whether I should jump straight into the job market and look for a full-time position, or wait until I had my feedback from the examiners. In the end, I decided that I should put my newfound free-time to good use and get applying for jobs.
I soon started to get disheartened with the process of applying for jobs. Even at this level, it is uncommon to hear back from employers, and those that do confirm you were unsuccessful can't often provide feedback. After a while, I started to doubt myself and my research. The inevitable 'why did I bother' questions started to creep in. I had decided to apply for both academic and non-academic jobs, since my interests had developed over my PGR experience: I was keen to pursue jobs that engaged with the public, sharing collections and heritage spaces with audiences of all ages and abilities. Yet, I found that by pursuing research I didn’t have the practical skills or qualification needed for many of these jobs. And at the same time, I didn’t have the experience needed for a lot of academic roles.
How to make the most of the 'limbo' time
It has taken me a little while to realise that the 'limbo' period after you finish your PhD doesn't need to be a negative experience. Instead, this can be an opportunity. Some of us, myself included, feel like there is a pressure to be constantly moving on to the next project, the next job, the next experience. You have to be always moving upwards. But life doesn’t always work like that. For me, I accepted that I was putting pressure on myself to find the 'right' job, the 'perfect' job, or the 'worthwhile' job only after my viva. I realised that I was fortunate to be able to complete my corrections without the stress of working full time. I got a part-time job that allows me to continue to develop my research skills, while gaining valuable practical experience in an arts and heritage environment. And while I still worry that I might not get the 'right' job, I try to remind myself that I might not get this chance again – to be flexible with my time, to take care of my health by exercising regularly and my mental wellbeing by taking breaks away with friends and family, or just by reading for pleasure!
I can also recommend taking some practical steps to help ensure that eventually you will get the 'right' job. Make an appointment with Katrina Gardner, the dedicated careers advisor for PGRs. She can help improve your academic C.V. and offer guidance on applications for academic fellowships or lecture-positions. If you want to move beyond the academic world, she can also help you adapt your C.V. to specific job sectors, helping you to understand how your skills can transfer across markets. Sign up for job alerts too, so you don’t need to spend your Sunday evenings stressing out while trying to finish applications before the Monday deadline! You can tailor these to suit via discipline, skills, or even geographical area. If you can afford to, volunteer with organisations you'd like to get involved with professionally (this is a great option if you work part-time or you'd like to move into an area outside your skillset). Most importantly, be open to different opportunities. That's not to say you should settle or give up on pursuing the dream job. But rather, remember that it is okay to take on part-time work or a job that helps pay the bills
At the end of the day, finishing a PhD is a huge achievement and we should take time to enjoy it. I feel proud that I completed my thesis and I am learning to be less hard on myself as I make my way through the jobs market. It would be great to get people talking about their experiences of life after the PhD, so get in touch via the comments or over on Twitter @UofG_PGRblog